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Celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

by Judie Haynes |

I have taught elementary age multilingual learners of English from many Asian countries. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I was astounded to discover that the bullying of Asian students happened in my school, and I was further saddened to continue learning about such instances throughout the pandemic.

Because the COVID-19 virus was first reported in China, during the pandemic there was an increase in violence in the United States against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI). Anyone who appeared to be Chinese in the United States was suddenly in danger of becoming a potential victim of bullying or violence. Attackers did not differentiate among people from the 40 countries that are Asian-Pacific, including Japan, North and South Korea, Cambodia, Thailand, India, and Pakistan.

It became my goal to find activities that would provide students in general education classrooms with positive experiences with their AAPI classmates. May, which is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, is a great time to honor the stories and experiences of the AAPI communities in your school. Following are five ways that English language and general education educators can do this.

1. Read Books That Celebrate AAPI Cultures

I find that my students are very interested in books with characters they can relate to. Check out Lee & Low Books, which feature many titles about AAPI cultures. An example from India is The Happiest Tree: A Yoga Story. I also like some of the books on Brightly. Look for titles that are authentic to the culture that they represent. A book like Tikki Tikki Tembo tells us "the danger of having such an honorable name as Tikki tikki tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo," but it really doesn’t tell us much about Chinese culture. I prefer books that are written by authors who are from the culture that is portrayed, such as those by Soyung Pak, Grace Lin, and Linda Sue Park.

2. Create a Rangoli Design

Rangolis are chalk or sand art patterns that Indian communities use to decorate their homes with during Diwali. This festival is one of the most popular celebrations in India. The word Diwali translates to “row of lights” in Sanskrit. This multiday festival of lights includes fireworks, food, gifts, colored sand, and special clay lamps. Creating a rangoli is a messy but fun activity that I have done with my students during Diwali. Rangolis can also be created with rice flour or beans.

3. Craft Mosaic Tile Art

Chinese artists make beautiful mosaic tile art  that reflects their culture. Though Chinese mosaic art can be made with glass, marble, tile, or rock,  simple designs geared toward kids can be crafted from construction paper, gummy bears, and other candies.

After looking at mosaics designed by Chinese artists, have students brainstorm traditional subjects of Chinese design, such as dragons, temples, and landscapes, and then have students make a mosaic that reflects their own culture. Here is a Pinterest page that features mosaic art made by children.

4. Listen to Asian Music

Celebrating diversity through music is one way to honor our differences while celebrating our similarities. Introduce your students to AAPI music and instruments, such as Japanese taiko drumming or the Korean piri. Many students are also very interested in K-pop singers, such as the seven-member Korean K-pop boy group BTS. My students did a short report on their favorite singing group, instrument, band, or song from their country, which they shared with the class.

In my school, we had a celebration where Korean mothers dressed in their hanboks, traditional Korean clothing, and performed a popular Korean dance at an assembly for the whole school. They taught me the dance and, one year, I danced with them. Our parents from India, Pakistan, and Japan also participated in the festival with music, food, and costume demonstrations.

5. Celebrate the Lunar New Year

In many Asian countries, Lunar New Year is celebrated beginning with the first new moon of the lunar calendar. Many Chinese and Vietnamese families exchange with one another red envelopes filled with money. Chinese and Vietnamese cultures also celebrate with Dragon Dance performances. Special food, including rice cakes, dumpling soup, noodles, and steamed fish is served on the eve of the Lunar New Year. In my school, we celebrated Asian holidays in May. Families of our Asian students brought in food to share with the whole school. 

About the author

Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.

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